Heroine of the Warsaw Ghetto dies, aged 98

By Ruth Ellen Gruber, May 16, 2008

Tributes have been paid to Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic resistance heroine who helped save 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto and died this week aged 98.

“A great person has died — a person with a great heart, with great organisational talents, a person who always stood on the side of the weak,” Marek Edelman, the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, told Polish television.

Heroine: Irena Sendler as a young woman

Ms Sendler, who died in Warsaw on Monday, headed the children’s section of Zegota, an underground organisation set up to help Jews in wartime Poland.

As a social worker, she was able to enter the Ghetto, where she and her team risked their lives to hide children in boxes, under the floorboards of carts or even in suitcases in order to smuggle them out to safety.

“When I saw what was going on, I just decided to act,” she said in a recent interview.

The children were placed with Catholic families and given new identities, but Ms Sendler kept a record of their real names, writing them on slips of paper which she preserved in two jars that were buried in a garden. In 1943 she was arrested and brutally tortured by the Gestapo, but she gave nothing away and survived thanks to a Zegota bribe to Nazi officials.

Yad Vashem recognised Ms Sendler as a Righteous Among Nations in 1965 when she became one of the first people to receive the honour.

“Irena Sendler’s courageous activities rescuing Jews during the Holocaust serve as a beacon of light to the world, inspiring hope and restoring faith in the innate goodness of mankind,” Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev said.

Despite the award, Ms Sendler’s heroism remained little known until after the fall of Communism. She gained world renown in 1999 after high school students in the United States produced a play about her, called Life in a Jar.

Last year, Poland’s parliament declared Ms Sendler a national hero, and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Tributes poured in after her death.

Expressing “great regret” at her passing, President Lech Kaczynski called Ms Sendler “an exceptional person”.

Joachim Russek, director of the Centrum Judaica in Krakow, said: “In extreme conditions, her attitude, conduct, and actions became an unattainable model of humanity, courage, and people’s solidarity.”

Shevach Weiss, a former Israeli Ambassador to Poland, put it this way: “Now she went to God. And she will ask God -- ‘God, where were you in the time of Holocaust?’ And God will answer to her: ‘I was in your heart.’”

Last updated: 2:22pm, June 4 2008